James Pierpont

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Biography

Born: April 25, 1822; Boston, MA   Died: August 5, 1893; Winter Haven, FL  
James Pierpont was born the second son of John Pierpont (1785-1866), at James' birth already well known as a Unitarian minister, poet, and fervent abolitionist. Music would've been an important part of James Pierpont's home life as a minister's son, and he probably picked up a lot of his early training just from singing and playing within his own family. At age 14 James ran away from home and joined the crew of a commercial whaling vessel. Read more Working his way into the U.S. Navy, Pierpont served as a seaman until he reached the age of 21. Pierpont is also said to have prospected in California during the Gold Rush of 1849, and during this period his name is shown on the rolls of a music committee belonging to a Unitarian church based in San Francisco.

By about 1851 Pierpont was reconciled with his family, and was either visiting or living in Medford, MA, where his father led the local Unitarian church, when he wrote the song for which he is known above all others, "Jingle Bells." The story goes that Pierpont was inspired to write "Jingle Bells" while watching sleigh rides given in Medford, a small town whose exciting and varied winter activities also provided the spark of inspiration for Lydia Marie Francis Child's song "Over the River and Through the Woods" (1845).

However, Jingle Bells was not the first song published by Pierpont; his career as a composer of popular songs apparently began in 1852 with a long-forgotten number entitled The Returned Californian, published in Boston by E.H. Wade. In 1857 Pierpont scored his first hit with a song written in collaboration with Marshall S. Pike, Gentle Nettie Moore. That year the Oliver Ditson Company of Boston published Jingle Bells in its first edition, under Pierpont's title of "The One Horse Open Sleigh." Initially the tune didn't exactly fly off the shelves, but in 1859 Ditson brought out a second edition bearing the title Jingle Bells, as we know it today. Jingle Bells was henceforth a huge success, and in time would travel to the four corners of the globe.

About this time Pierpont married and moved to Savannah, GA, to become the organist at the Unitarian church of his minister brother, John Pierpont, Jr. (1819-1878). With the outbreak of the American Civil War, the Pierpont brothers found themselves on the opposite side of the battle lines from their abolitionist father. For his part, James contributed a number of songs to the Confederate effort, including such titles as We Conquer or Die (1861) and Strike for the South (1863). Such songs, obviously, retained little meaning after the Confederate cause was lost, and Pierpont seems to have stopped writing songs altogether after the conclusion of the war.

Although James Pierpont's son Juriah renewed the copyright on Jingle Bells in 1880, the family made very little money from it. During his lifetime James Pierpont was struggling to keep his credit on the song, as he had lost that for Gentle Nettie Moore, widely regarded as Marshall Pike's song only. In the years after Pierpont's death, the authorship of Jingle Bells attached itself to different members of the Pierpont clan, depending on which hymnal or publication was consulted. Some sources attribute the little piece to Pierpont's non-musical brother, and others even to Pierpont's father, whose only musical work was a sober book of Temperance songs entitled Cold Water Melodies (1848).

In 1853 James Pierpont had published a song entitled Oh! Let Me Not Neglected Die! However he was both impoverished and forgotten at his death at age 70. Pierpont's nephew, the powerful financier J. Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913) once remembered his ill-fated uncle as a "good-for-nothing," and indeed, the early song The Returned Californian opens with the line "Oh! I'm going far away from my creditors just now, I ain't the tin to pay 'em." However, Jingle Bells remains one of the few songs that are known to practically everyone in the world, even in Asia, where the tune is especially popular. Read less

There are 108 James Pierpont recordings available.

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